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Longreads

Gratitude: Good for our Mind and Soul

Jeffrey Froh (with Response by Giacomo Bono)


Psychologists discuss the importance of gratitude toward God and others for living a flourishing life.

Associate Professor of Psychology, Hofstra University
August 2, 2019

“In ordinary life we hardly realize that we receive a great deal more than we give, and that it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Click here for Giacomo Bono’s companion essay, “A Tour of Gratitude in Development: Spiritual Reflections for Thriving,” and Jeffrey Froh’s response.

“Daddy, daddy, look at that. Isn’t it beautiful?” said my then three-year-old daughter, Julianne, while tugging on my leg as we walked our dog one night. Turning around I stood in awe staring at a gorgeous sunset, which filled the sky with pink, lavender, orange, and magenta hues. I remember thinking to myself, “Thank you, God, for giving my little girl such an appreciation of beauty so young.” In the moment, I wondered if Julianne was experiencing genuine gratitude similar to myself; I wondered if she got a gratitude gene from me (I’m not perfect, but I am grateful), or if my wife and I had been successful at teaching her the importance of saying “thank you,” even to God for a beautiful sunset; I also wondered how Julianne might benefit from her grateful orientation if she maintained this attitude of gratitude. Though I’ve only been collecting data for 2 years since that magical moment, so far the results suggest that her grateful outlook is related with her happiness, kindness, strong social relationships, and love for God. But does science support my observations? Or am I only seeing what I want to see? Well, it turns out that the science of gratitude has exploded this past decade. And my observations, while still possibly tainted by rose-colored glasses, are justified. In this article, I’ll first discuss the science supporting gratitude’s link to happiness, kindness, and social support, and then I’ll discuss gratitude’s influence on spiritual well-being.

Gratitude and Psychological Well-Being

Emotions are a person’s readiness to create, keep, or change circumstances. Because gratitude concerns circumstances where benefits are exchanged, it enables one to notice, understand, and capitalize off kindness exchanged with others. Often manifested in offering genuine thanks to a benefactor, gratitude acknowledges the beneficial exchanges and positive relationships in which they occur. It helps secure and build important resources (e.g., assistance and cooperation from others, knowledge, opportunities) and establish supportive, fulfilling relationships—all benefits that are mutually reinforcing. Thus, gratitude may be a vital social skill because it broadens people’s horizons so that they can purposefully approach the future. The earlier and more often in life people hone the genuine experience of gratitude, the better their chances of achieving success, stability, coherence, and well-being.

Gratitude is associated with many positive states and outcomes. Research on gratitude as a personality trait consistently shows that grateful people, regardless of age, tend to be happy people. For example, compared to less grateful people, grateful people report experiencing more life satisfaction, optimism, and vitality, and less depression and envy; they also tend to report greater religiousness and spirituality. Grateful individuals also endorse high levels of agreeableness, extraversion, openness, and low levels of neuroticism. What’s impressive is that gratitude’s relation with all of these positive outcomes remained whether the questionnaires completed in this research were answered by the grateful people themselves or their peers, suggesting that gratitude and its positive correlates are visible to oneself and also friends, relatives and romantic partners. Other research on adults has also shown that grateful people tend to experience greater positive emotions, such as more frequent contentment, joy, and hope, as well as fewer negative emotions. Thus, if your goal is to become a better version of yourself, research suggests that you should try to become more grateful.

The regular experience of positive emotions can make people healthier and more resilient, fueling an upward spiral of positivity and well-being. Positive emotions broaden how you view the world and can undo the physiological effects of negative emotions. Indeed, one reason resilient people bounce back from negative life events better is that they experience positive emotions regularly and use them more often in response to stressful situations. Given its relation to positive emotions, gratitude may be used to engage this upward spiral. For example, after compassion, gratitude was the second most common emotion experienced (out of 20 emotions) after the September 11 attacks in 2001. Thus, gratitude appeared to be a powerful factor that helped people to cope with the disaster. Such effects may occur with youth, too. For example, in an archival study of newspaper accounts of things children were thankful for, themes of gratitude for basic human needs (e.g., family, friends, and teachers) were found to increase after 9/11. There’s no way to tell, however, if positive emotions helped the children cope with the disaster. Nonetheless, evidence suggests that gratitude may be a powerful emotion for coping with adversity.

Grateful people tend to be more helpful toward others. Indeed, gratitude as a personality trait was associated with being more helpful, supportive, forgiving, and empathic toward others. Again, these associations held using self-reports and peer reports as well. Other research has shown that relatively grateful people are also less narcissistic. Here, too, there’s evidence to suggest that gratitude may be helpful to adolescents for building supportive relationships. In addition to being satisfied with their friends and family, early adolescents also reported greater perceived peer and family support. Together, the evidence then suggests that gratitude is geared toward upholding supportive and caring ties to friends and family, and perhaps other social relationships in general.

Recent experimental research has demonstrated that gratitude can actually cause kind behavior. The experience of gratitude can cause people to act kind to their benefactor (i.e., direct reciprocity), or even strangers (i.e., upstream reciprocity). In one study with adults, people were randomly assigned into either a gratitude or chance condition. The gratitude condition was intended to induce feelings of gratitude by leading people to believe they received money from another participant as a favor. The people in the chance condition were made to believe they had received money by chance. People in the favor condition reported being more motivated by gratitude to act kindly, thus donating some money to the other participant. Those participants in the chance condition didn’t report feeling that they wanted to be kind by donating money. Thus, the distribution of money seems to have been influenced by gratitude’s ability to motivate people to be kind to others.

Gratitude and Spiritual Well-Being

The concept of being grateful and giving thanks to God is common to Christians. Themes of thanks, blessings, and thanksgiving are found throughout the Bible.

Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thessalonians 5:18)

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:17)

Scripture is very clear about the lifestyle we should lead. Yet when faced with the daily trials and temptations, cultural status quos, time pressures and other stressors, it’s easy to forget about this and to feel jealous, envious, selfish, greedy, and, well… ungrateful. Given the frequency that thankfulness is discussed in the Bible and our desire to thank God for His blessings and for sending His Son to die for our sins, we can agree that thankfulness and gratitude are worthwhile goals for individuals and families. But can gratitude for God and His grace help make us grateful?

“Gratitude is the natural reaction to the perception of grace”

My colleagues and I recently followed over 700 early adolescents for four years, tracking their gratitude development, well-being, risk-taking behaviors, self-control, and religious practices, among other variables. Preliminary analyses indicate that teens who regularly say grace with their families were more likely to increase in gratitude during the four years; perhaps saying grace helped the teens slow down and take inventory of the blessings in their lives, thus making them more grateful. This relation, however, is correlational. So it’s just as likely that teens who became more grateful during the four years started saying grace more frequently with their families; perhaps becoming more grateful made teens more aware of God’s influence in their lives and saying grace helped them recognize it and express thanks. Nonetheless, Grace is another term strongly associated with gratitude. Indeed, some researchers have noted that grace and gratitude go hand in hand, suggesting that gratitude is the natural reaction to the perception of grace.

Growing up, my family and I didn’t attend church regularly, nor did we volunteer there. Neither did we have deep, meaningful conversations about God’s role in creating everything we know and giving us everything we had. This isn’t to say that I was an entitled brat; I’d like to think I had some sense of appreciation. But I definitely didn’t know that God was the source for all of my good fortune, nor did I appreciate that I was a part of His plan or that He gave me my health. When I was born I had severe oxygen deprivation, and the doctors told my parents that I would likely be blind, deaf, severely mentally handicapped, or even die. But if asked, “Got God?” when I was a kid, I would’ve said, “No.”

By contrast, my wife and I consistently tell our children that we live such a privileged life because God continues to fill our lives with His love and grace. To illustrate, we attend church weekly and volunteer together. At night, we also pray as a family, and my wife and I always include prayers of thanksgiving. Recently, my wife said, “Thank you God for my wonderful family. I’m so very blessed to have them in my life; I love them very much.” I, too, am very heavy on prayers of thanksgiving. That same night I thanked God for helping my son’s finger heal after surgery. Hearing such prayers regularly, my children’s prayer lives have become enriched, thus has their relationship with Jesus and God. For example, beyond praying for someone, which was their typical prayer, my children now always include at least one prayer of thanksgiving. My son, James, might thank God for helping him do well on an exam in school, and my daughter, Julianne, might thank God for her Uncle Kevin. Regardless of what they thank God for, expressing gratitude to Him is now standard.

While my colleagues and I are still trying to unpack the relation between gratitude and religious practices, such as saying grace, I think it’s safe to say that the two are connected. Thus, if you’re looking to become more grateful, you should consider saying grace before meals regularly. Worst case scenario saying grace doesn’t make you more grateful; but it will make God feel loved and appreciated. And that’s a good thing. Now will saying grace as a family keep Julianne on the path to gratitude? I hope so. But she’s only 5 years old. So God willing, I’ll have many more years to collect data.

Response from Giacomo Bono

Gratitude is at once simple and universal yet complex and personal. The personal story Jeffrey opens up with illustrates this. He’s enjoying the sunset one evening with his daughter while walking their dog. Though the story describes common experiences many of us may have had before, the pleasant event contains more about how families can live gratefully and instill gratitude in children than you might appreciate at first. And ironically, the trick with gratitude is to become mindful of the meaning contained in everyday experiences and intentionally plan more of such experiences into your life. So let’s revisit the sunset story to see how we can intentionally live with more gratitude.

Gratitude and appreciation are often used and experienced interchangeably, but research is finding that appreciation is a more general behavior than gratitude, which comprises some of the varieties of appreciation (Rusk & Waters, 2015). However, because positive psychological interventions or experiences tend to be more powerful the more they are personalized and the more they involve a fresh mix of experiential qualities, we are more likely to create a grateful orientation in life if we incorporate more appreciative functioning into our life. Exploring the different ways people experience appreciation, Adler and Fagley (2005) derived a definition of appreciation as ‘‘acknowledging the value and meaning of something—an event, a person, a behavior, an object—and feeling a positive emotional connection to it’’ (page 81). Further, they discovered 8 distinct types of appreciation, and they came up with a model they called “HARPSGLI” Jeffrey’s opening story illustrates many of them, and it’s worth applying this model to his story, and his article in general, so that we could consider how we can more deliberately choose to appreciate the things and people in our lives daily so as to become more grateful.

Have Focus

While the prospect of walking the dog could sometimes be considered another chore at the end of the day, it ended up gracing Jeffrey and his daughter with a loving, memorable exchange that evening. If walking the dog was simply a chore, then Jeffrey might have scuffed off the tug at the leg to check out the sunset. The truth is to become a more grateful person, and pass gratitude on to others, we have to choose gratitude regularly. One of the easiest ways to increase our gratitude numbers is to consciously switch complaints to an appreciative focus. Neurologically, negative events are like Velcro for our brains, whereas positive events are like Teflon. Thus, it takes effort to overcome this state of affairs to choose a focus on what we have—rather than on what we lack or on our burdens—and valuing it. We can choose to focus on anything we experience as being with us or connected to us in some meaningful way, and the list of what we have goes beyond tangible possessions. For example, we can have some degree of health, community with family or friends, beliefs and values, certain privileges, a connection with God, etc.

Awe

Feeling awe or wonder, and having a sense of transcendent connection to nature, God, beauty, or life itself creates a deep, emotional, spiritual experience that we are part of something larger. Seeing and feeling the beauty and splendor of the sunset together with a friend, a partner, or our child can leave us speechless because we lose ourselves in a state of collective compassion and concern. Engaging our senses during such moments stimulates our curiosity and wonder and enables us to feel a greater love for humanity or the divine. This is more important than ever as adults and children in our society spend more time working or being on digital screens and less time outdoors and physically interacting with other people. Making time to notice the beauty of the natural world, attend art or music events, and explore the outdoors not only protects us from larger cultural trends focused on individualistic or materialistic pursuits, but it helps us stay connected to our own humanity and to living out God’s love.

Ritual

This aspect of appreciation represents performing acts that foster appreciation. While many ceremonial acts from religious teachings can help, we can also create our own personal routines to cultivate an awareness of people and things around us to appreciate. For example, beyond walking the dog during sunset, we could set rituals as a family, a classroom, or a group of friends to greet each morning with thanks for another day, to recognize a safe arrival to a new destination, to acknowledge supporters or helpers at meals and events, etc. The nice thing about rituals is they introduce consistency, which is valuable for bringing order into the developing child’s life, but also for practicing appreciation more often.

Present Moment

Savoring the present moment grounds us by keeping our cognitive and emotional states in tune with the positive qualities of a special event. We can cultivate mindfulness not just by taking in the colors and sensations of a glorious sunset, but by creating other occasions or spaces where we use our other senses to appreciate more deeply something we love (e.g., chocolate, raisins, or ice cream) or our own capacity for self-compassion and self-control (e.g., when we feel our emotions rising in traffic, at the office, or with friends).

Self/Social Comparison

This aspect involves appreciating how our current status may be better than our status in the past (self-comparison) or other people’s status (social comparison). Though it does not factor into Jeffrey’s opening story, this type of appreciation enables us to feel grateful for conditions improving in our lives (e.g., being able to travel internationally for vacation for the first time) or for things we can easily take for granted (e.g., having shoes or healthy food, when others do not). Making use of such reference points regularly helps us value and stay grateful for what we do have in our lives.

Gratitude

When we notice and acknowledge a gift, whether from another person or a deity, and feel thankful for the efforts, sacrifices, and actions of benefactors for making our lives better or easier, then we feel love and belonging thanks to having such special relationships in our lives. Beyond feeling grateful to God or your spouse for the strengths and talents your child exhibits, you can find other benefactors to be grateful for (i.e., teachers, pastors, neighbors, relatives, or coaches) who have supported or nurtured those qualities in your child. Expressing thanks to these people for these benefits not only validates and models the importance of these special relationships in your families’ life, it can energize you, your family and the benefactors themselves to keep practicing God’s love.

Loss/Adversity

Experiences of loss and adversity can raise our awareness of things we may have taken for granted and can help us appreciate the people who have helped us through difficult times. Though this aspect of appreciation also does not factor into Jeffrey’s opening story, practicing appreciation through loss and adversity not only helps us stay grateful for the good things and people we have in our lives still but helps us grow resilient too. This concept is illustrated in the study Jeffrey described—of gratitude helping children cope with the 9/11 tragedy.

Interpersonal

This aspect of appreciation involves noticing, acknowledging, and feeling positively about the people in our lives, and it includes appreciating moments of being understood, cared for, helped, or supported by someone. Though this type of appreciation did not factor into Jeffrey’s sunset story either, it is illustrated in other parts of his article that describe how gratitude produces psychological well-being. Because humans are fundamentally social beings, relationships are a vital source of thriving. Valuing the contribution that our social relationships make to our lives and our well-being by thanking the people responsible is a reliable way to strengthen our relationships, become part of a community, and discover ways we can help others and society in return. Thus, a way to feel energized by the gratitude felt for healing, for doing well on an exam in school, or for the uncle who always lifts your spirits, is to follow up thankfulness to God for these things with notes of thanks to the benefactors involved—the doctor, the teacher, or uncle. By sharing our gratitude with these people, we let them know that their efforts matter and we create a sense of hope and community. Everyone is more likely to put in their best effort moving forward.

I started this essay with the following thought: Gratitude is at once simple and universal yet complex and personal. As research on appreciation shows, there are many different ways to practice gratitude. I hope this article helps spark some ideas for how you can bring more appreciative functioning into your own life to achieve greater psychological and spiritual well-being. With each choice to appreciate the good things and people in our lives we introduce a little more love and meaning into our life story. That we share this gift and succeed better together casts gratitude itself as a gift from God that we should all aspire to experience and spread, day after day, in pursuit of a better world.

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